When Tom Watson left the Labour frontbench, he was fulsome in praise (in the correct sense of the phrase) for his leader. But since then, he’s not exactly been trying that hard to keep Ed Miliband in a state of zen-like calm. He told the Marr Show this morning that he would support Adam Afriyie’s troublemaking amendment to the EU referendum bill:
‘I don’t want to add to the PM’s panic but I will probably be supporting Adam Afriyie with his amendments so… I think there are a lot of people on both sides of the House who think we need clarity on this now. And the country has asked for it for a long time, business is saying that there is a lot of uncertainty, and you know, parties have got to draw up their manifestos for the 2015 general election. And they will be very different depending on the outcome of a referendum, so it strikes me that we’ve got European elections next year in 2014… well he’s kept his options open, he’s said that he can take that decision at a later date but I just don’t know it would be down to him and Douglas Alexander but now I’m on the backbenches I think I might support Adam.’
Afriyie was evasive to say the least when grilled by Andrew Neil about how many MPs he has supporting this amendment. But Watson’s intervention is significant because he is a far more powerful figure in his party than Afriyie is in his. It is also direct challenge to Ed Miliband, who decided to duck the issue of a referendum at his party conference. Those close to the discussions tell me that the plan developed in the past few weeks is to wait for the European elections, and then turn around and say ‘we’ve listened, we’ve learned’ and announce that Labour backs a 2017 referendum too. But Watson thinks that decision needs to come much sooner.
This could mean the Afriyie’s troublemaking amendment, designed to split the Tory party because ‘europhile’ is such a dirty word that MPs will back anything that shows their constituents that they are the sort of robust eurosceptic that they say they are, becomes more of a burden to the Labour party than it is to the Tory party. Watson is causing trouble to the leadership by highlighting that his Buddha-like leader still has no public position on a referendum.
PS from Fraser: If Tom Watson’s agenda is purely destructive (as tends to be the case with retired Brownite hit men) then his intervention makes sense. David Cameron had united the Tories over Europe with his post-2015 referendum pledge and now the ambitious Afriyie has found a tool for dividing them once again. Should Labour help them sink the knife into Cameron? Let’s set aside the fact that Afriyie has badly misjudged this and is being trashed even by hardline Eurosecptics. What he has proposed is the what Labour types dream of: an issue that could bring down the government and pave the way for an early election. Polls back Labour to win an election if held now – so the fall of the coalition and an early election should, in theory, work in Labour’s advantage. Why wait for an economic recovery? Labour could vote with Tory rebels to push through an early referendum, and wait for the coalition to fall. And as many Labour members want out of the EU as would vote to stay in (it’s about 38/38) and many trade unionists have long loathed the EU. I can’t see Ed Miliband backing this, but Watson’s position certainly makes strategic and ideological sense.